By now, you should have your website goals along with identifying who will be your target audience/market. If you don’t, take out a sheet of paper or its electronic equivalent and do that now by answering these questions:
- What is your website’s goal?
- Who is your target market or audience?
Knowing the answers to those questions determines your website’s functional design, its organizational scheme, and what is required for development.
Overview of a Website’s Function
Every website and, actually, every page, requires a hook — something that draws the visitor in, and, once arrived, convinces them to “buy” what you’re selling, whether that is yourself, your agenda or event, or your product or service. The quicker and more convincingly you sell them on “buying”, the more success you achieve. The more often and the longer the time they spend exploring your presentation, the more potential you have to ‘convert’ and ‘convince’ them to become a paying customer, a fan, a participant, or an advocate.
Treat Every Publicly Available Page as Your Website’s Front Door
Every public page, except for those within a sequential set or activity, is potentially a front door, exposing visitors to your product, service, or message, and (hopefully) leading them to engage and complete your established goals. This is because search engines and visitors, both, will link to pages other than the home page, unless you force them to use the home page as an entrance, not advisable. Your visitors, first time visitors or return visitors, may arrive anywhere on your website, therefore, you have to think of your website and each of its public pages as a complete and comprehensive advertisement, point of sale the place where your goods/goals are presented to your visitor, and point of purchase the point where your visitor completes your goal transaction. So, unless you are purposely designing a website as a linear experience with a single, publicly accessible entrance, don’t think of your website as a book read page by page or as a house with rooms where everyone enters through the main entrance to explore, room by room, only using the doors and hallways you designate. Instead, organize and build with the idea that every page is the main entrance, the showroom, and the transaction register. Every publicly accessible page has to invite and, then, entice your visitor toward your chosen goal(s) as effectively, convincingly, and efficiently as possible.
In designing functionality, the most common mistake in website development is to think and visualize linearly, rather than panoptically, which means to think, visualize, and perceive the whole and all its individual parts simultaneously. One way to conceive of it is to watch the 3D representation (the shadow) of the 4D tesseract, duoprism, or octacube…
…with the understanding that, instead of moving through space, utilizing time and movement to perceive all the aspects, instead your website acts like a real tesseract, duoprism, or octacube where each element, each facet, each part and piece and page, is simultaneously presented to the fore — everything simultaneously perceivable at any instant. Everything publicly available on your website is simultaneously exposed for public scrutiny, including the underlying code upon which it is built.
Knowing that, you must then take it into account when you begin designing the functionality of your website. You do this by recognizing that every publicly available page or part should be, in my opinion, (but doesn’t have to be) directly connected to every other publicly available page or part …with the exception, as mentioned before, of the few select instances where purposeful linear design is desired or required …like checkout in a shopping cart, where the details of the buyer’s sensitive information must remain inviolate and hidden from all but the buyer themselves, even you …which is why I suggest using services like PayPal or a legitimate merchant account for financial transactions, to name one instance where this applies. (REASON: If you are not retaining a buyer’s sensitive personal data in your database, there can never be any claim of fraud or mismanagement of account information made against you.) More on all that later, though. Let’s get back to interconnectedness.
For simplicity, I’m going to just call everything a “webpage”, even though one may be a PDF document, one my be a gateway to a linear application, one may be a login to a private membership area. If we have 2 webpages, linking them to each other is simple. But let’s say we have eight webpages. If we connect one to all the others, we could diagram it like this:
If the red node at the top of the diagram represents the homepage, the diagram shows the homepage linking to all the other webpages (and those webpages could or should link all link back to it). But there’s no way to move from any non-red node to a different non-red node.
When we connect all eight to each other, the linking looks like this, and, again, the links should go both ways. Now, every webpage is linked to every other webpage. A visitor can go from any one webpage to another without struggle. The image makes it look hard, but it isn’t. The main menu, like the one I have above, easily handles it, up to about fifty pages if they’re well distributed. But the main menu should not go too deep. You’ll overwhelm the drop down in depth and the visitor in too much information all delivered at once. Be judicious. Save depth for other kinds of menu systems, tables, and indices.
Why comprehensive linking is important for all publicly available pages is that a visitor could, via organic search or a link drop somewhere, land on any public page, even deep level pages or posts. If there is no clear linking and an indication of where those pages are in the organizational hierarchy of the website, where that visitor might want to go next isn’t an option. They could use the search function, but, if you’ve ever used search on a website, you know most search functions are less than adequate, and guessing at possible search terms becomes extremely frustrating. (There are good search options, but few utilize them, because they require more than installing a plugin.) Of course, the visitor could go back to the home page, but, once there, there’s usually no clear indication of the where the information is that drew them there in the first place or any reference to its related content. Yes, they could use a site map, but sitemaps, if you’ve ever seen or tried to use one, can be daunting, especially on sites where there are hundreds or thousands of entries and pages.
I come across this on sites a lot, not only on WordPress installs, but also on those of major newspapers and on the Medium website. I clicked through a link drop to Part 3 of some set of related articles, and, while there’s a reference to Part 1 and Part 2, there are no links back to Part 1 or Part 2. Searching doesn’t bring them up for me, either. Clicking on the author’s byline link, likewise, winds up as an exercise in futility. So, then, if I’m seriously interested in finding Part 1 and Part 2, I head back to a major search engine and try to find those missing parts, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. When and if I do find the earlier articles, I will note that, while Part 1 links to Part 2 and Part 2 to Part 3, Part 2 doesn’t link back to Part 1 and Part 1 only links to Part 2, while Part 3 doesn’t link back to any of them. AVOID THAT.
Now, dealing with fifty webpages is easy with a top menu. Just make sure it’s responsive …which means will remain a functional menu, regardless of the device used (mobile, tablet, or PC). Dealing with fifty first level pages, each of which has ten sub-pages each, then those sub-pages having children linked under them, becomes completely unwieldy for the top menu. You don’t want to do that. That’s where you have to come up with alternative linking systems …like breadcrumb menus or inset menus, slide-ins, or… in addition to the top menu. (Again, more on all this later.) But, once you begin to surpass the number of pages that your top menu will comfortably hold, especially for the third or fourth level deep in pages, you’ll also want to provide something akin to a table of contents and an index. These differ from a sitemap because they are built with humans in mind, not robots …which is ‘who’ sitemaps are actually built for.
Let’s look at the most common frustration out there on the web, aside from social media’s streams where it’s here this second and vanished the next unless you grabbed the unique identifier. I’m talking about the notorious “loop” in WordPress and other content management systems. A website with thousands of posts, all stored in one or another linear sorting method, usually by date, but that’s up to the website owner, makes it nigh on impossible to find some great post you read last year sometime and want to reference. You go to the website, and, even if the website has provided an archive based on the year, you’ll be spending forever hitting previous or next, trying to find that one article. And, of course, some sites don’t bother to provide obvious links to their archives.
You owe it to your visitors to make ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that you publicly publish to be easily accessible. That means easy to find and easy to access — EVERYTHING. And, no, just using #tags won’t do it, though it does help …some. But, still, it’s just not good enough. (I’ll go into how-to later on, too.)
Let’s Summarize So Far
- Treat every publicly accessible webpage as a front door.
- Make sure all publicly accessible webpages link to every other publicly available webpage.
- Make sure navigation is intuitive, and that every publicly available page can be swiftly and easily found by visitors, regardless on which other page they’re on.